The “best” Toronto Raptors lineup doesn’t live here anymore.
It was discontinued when Jonas Valanciunas was traded to the Memphis Grizzlies on Feb. 7 in the deal the brought back Marc Gasol, who made his eighth consecutive start for his new club against the Chicago Bulls on Tuesday night.
Prior to the deal, the Raptors were at their most potent — on paper at least — with Valanciunas on the floor with Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Pascal Siakam and Kawhi Leonard.
Their net rating was an impressive +23.8. That mark would still be one of the best in the NBA if the band was still together.
What substituting in Gasol will eventually mean for the Raptors remains a bit of an unknown, even if he’s been with his new team for seven weeks.
Injuries, prescribed rest and Raptors head coach Nick Nurse’s decision to flip-flop Gasol with Serge Ibaka in the starting lineup until recently meant that the group that projects to be his starting lineup in the playoffs had played just 75 minutes together before last night.
In that small sample there have been signs of promise, even if Gasol’s numbers don’t jump off the page.
The Raptors play to a +11.9 net rating with Gasol starting and have seen their assists increase and both their overall field goal percentage and their three-point percentage take an uptick too.
“We’re still feeling each other out but he’s fit in very well,” said Green, who continued his scorching three-point shooting by hitting a pair on three attempts in just 15 minutes of floor time — he came into the game shooting 44.3 per cent. “…The ball movement starts with him. He’s good at what he does. It’s contagious.
It was all on display in Toronto’s 112-103 win over the Bulls at Scotiabank Arena.
In their first seven minutes on the floor, the Raptors jumped out to a 14-10 lead that seemed like it could have been more, given the mouse-playing-with-string feel the early going had. The Raptors stole the ball on the Bulls’ first possession and hit a three, and stole the ball on their next possession too. That one ended with Gasol hitting the open man in a red uniform in the corner, except that turned out to be member of the Bulls wearing a red warmup top on the bench.
No matter. Gasol played huge at the rim, disrupting a number of Bulls attacks. He blocked two shots. The ball zinged around offensively. In just under seven minutes the Raptors had four assists on six made field goals, the exceptions being a pair of layups by Pascal Siakam where the rangy forward had a mismatch on a switch.
Interestingly Gasol’s raw numbers continue to look less than impressive. He finished 1-of-6 from the floor and counted just one assist and two points — the second time in three games he scored just a single field goal, sandwiched around a 17-point game against Oklahoma City Sunday.
But the only starter that was +10 or better for the game was Siakam. Something is working.
The potential of the group is evident. It has a little bit of everything: shooting, isolation scoring, interchangeability on defence, paint protection and the low-post scoring in a pinch.
The caveat is how much can be gleaned from brief sample sizes against a team like the Bulls who — at 21-54 — are the Raptors (52-23) reverse image and are hurtling towards the draft lottery again. Worse, they were missing four starters from a team that only the most optimistic would have considered a fringe playoff contender when healthy.
But that’s all the Raptors have to work with at the moment. This week Toronto will play three straight games against teams that have lost 50 games already for the first time in franchise history — the Knicks on Thursday and the Bulls in Chicago Saturday.
They pose their own kind of challenge. While Raptors starters looked sharp in the first half, they were less so after coming out of the break leading 56-41.
The ball moved less as the Raptors were more willing to settle for Leonard (14 points on 10 shots) going one-on-one against overmatched defenders.
When they did move the ball, the Bulls defence didn’t always follow or the Raptors fell into the trap of trying to make more difficult plays for better shots rather than settling for the quick easy looks the Bulls offered up with minimal resistance.
“We just have to stay focused all the way through,” said Lowry.
But Raptors starters were able to overwhelm the Bulls with even a hint of aggressive defence and were rewarded with a wave of Bulls turnovers. Leonard had six steals in 22 minutes, tied for the second-most in franchise history. The Bulls turned the ball over 18 times on the night.
By the time Nurse went to his bench again with five minutes to play, the Raptors were up 19 after Gasol found Lowry for his fourth triple on seven attempts to put Toronto up 19.
Where would the Raptors be now had they not made the deal that also cost them handy point-guard insurance in the form of Delon Wright (as well as struggling three-point shooter CJ Miles)?
We’ll never know, obviously. The Raptors went 21-12 while Valanciunas was on the shelf and then made the deal the same day he was supposed to return to action. They are now 12-7 since adding Gasol, but with so much flex in their lineup it’s hard to measure his true effect.
It’s hard to imagine Valanciunas would have hurt them. He kept himself in great condition while he was rehabbing his thumb and hit the ground running in Memphis. Through 16 games he’s averaging 19.3 points and 10.2 rebounds in just 27 minutes of playing time.
But Gasol was brought to the Raptors not to replicate the big Lithuanian’s relentless work on the offensive glass or even his ability to score on the left block. The former defensive player of the year is expected to increase the Raptors’ collective defensive IQ and make plays for others offensively.
“I think our starting five has a super-high IQ so that’s the one thing that helps us and that’s big,” said Lowry on the challenge of integrating Gasol. “Long-term we’re going to get some continuity but I think with the IQ and everyone feeling each other out, that’s going to help.”
How much they can take away from minutes against the lowly Bulls is another question.
The biggest positive may be that none of the starters got hurt, especially Leonard, who fell awkwardly in the third quarter after slipping on a drive but seemed none the worse for wear. The exception was OG Anunoby who banged his head after trying to draw a charge and had to be helped to the dressing room, although he said later he was fine but will still go through the NBA’s concussion protocol.
Other positives were some good minutes for Nurse’s rotation players, in particular Norm Powell, who came off the bench for 20 points on 10 shots.
But the biggest positive of all was that after 14 or so minutes of controlled scrimmage against what are in theory NBA players, Nurse didn’t have to put his starters back in for more.